By MARILYN LESTER**** During the gala opening of the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s 28th Cabaret Convention, Artistic Director and host KT Sullivan brought up an interesting point. The event has never been called a “Festival,” as are most gatherings concerning entertainment. The late Donald Smith, who created the Foundation, chose to call these nights of performance a convention. “We convene,” she said. The simple definition of “convene” is “to arrange a meeting of people or groups for a purpose.” The word “convene” is a morpheme of the noun “convention,” which itself is defined as “a meeting or assembly of people who share a common interest.” What’s implicit in these terms is a sense of seriousness of purpose.
A festival, on the other hand, be it one organized for a series of concerts, plays or movies, immediately connotes a celebration, a carnival or a jamboree. The feeling is lighter, perhaps even frivolous. And yet, the dictionary definition of cabaret also describes an activity that’s festive; a cabaret is an entertainment held in a nightclub or restaurant while the audience eats or drinks at tables. So what drove Donald Smith to regard our celebration of cabaret as a convention? Perhaps it was the fragility of the genre. Even when in his salad days and active, he saw the need to maintain and preserve this kind of entertainment he loved so well.
Related to Donald Smith’s word choice in naming the Cabaret Convention is a term we hear frequently: “the cabaret community.” And in the definition of the word “community” is a clue as to why we convene. A community is, among other things, a group of people considered a unit because of shared interests or background. This definition further implies that the members have a feeling of belonging, that members matter to one another and to the group and that members’ needs will be met through the group’s commitment to be together. In other words, the community is a supportive network upon which members can depend. Membership provides acceptance and emotional safety. It conveys the feeling that members are able and willing to help one another and receive help in return. Additionally, those in a community usually share a common history and a similarity of experience in which members generally form bonds and relationships. The cabaret world surely exhibits all of these defining factors of community – and so we convene. In doing so, we create a yearly, living example of why our Cabaret Convention is so aptly named.
So, on a Tuesday night in a program devoted to the work of the stalwart Gershwins, many of the delightful performers who graced the stage perfectly illustrated the meaning of why we convene in community. It was co-host Jeff Harnar thanking the Mabel Mercer Foundation for the necessary and stellar work it does. And it was Harnar acknowledging an eight-year co-hosting partnership with Andrea Marcovicci, as well as a friendship and performing partnership with Shauna Hicks. We convene in celebration of the friendships that emerge and develop in wonderful ways, such as a lovely duet between Celia Berk and Karen Akers. It is the appearance of two individuals – Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano – who met and married within the community. And then there is possibility and opportunity and encouragement, as voiced by Deborah Silver. Two years ago, she’d remarked from the stage that she’d been an audience member sitting in one of “those seats,” and now was performing in the very same Rose Hall. That same encouragement embraces crossover talent. Jazz singers Nicolas King (whose first concert had ardent supporter Steve Ross in attendance) and Gabrielle Stravelli, along with jazz violinist Aaron Weinstein each has a home in the cabaret community. There is the mentoring that’s strong within the community, such as Andrea Marcovicci proud to see Jennifer Sheehan shine onstage. The latter is a soprano much awarded by the Foundation, who’s come a long way from the 14-year-old who signed up for Marcovicci’s master class. In fact, one of the missions of the Mabel Mercer Foundation is to foster new talent, which it does admirably. Lastly, the sense of community that’s so strong in the cabaret world becomes acutely apparent when one of our own passes on. The recent deaths of Julie Wilson (pictured, right), Barbara Carroll, Barbara Cook and Barry Levitt are potent illustrations of how deep the bonds go.
And so, while we come together to celebrate, Donald Smith rightly appraised the seriousness with which we accept the responsibility of strengthening our community and keeping the American Songbook alive and well. As outlets for expression continue to dwindle, the convening becomes even more important. The Cabaret Convention is an annual focal point for the genre. Over the course of the Convention’s four evenings, a spotlight illuminates not only remarkable talent, but all that defines the special world of cabaret. The summation of this article was in plain sight at the finale of Tuesday night’s program. To witness all the participants line up on stage to sing “Love Is Here to Stay,” with enthusiasm and camaraderie, was to understand why this extraordinary cabaret community convenes and why cabaret will continue long into the century ahead.